Five months ago I wrote about my struggles while trying to get used to using a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine every night. At that time, all I could do was try to manage one night at a time and to listen to the advice of other, more experienced CPAP users. They reassured me that it would take at least a few months to adjust to using it.

Well, it turns out that they were right. Slipping the mask on over my head and adjusting the nosepiece has now become an automatic part of my bedtime routine, whether I’m at home or traveling and staying in a hotel. At first I just couldn’t get used to sleeping on my back, so I spent a considerable sum of money on a CPAP pillow with a hole on the end for the mask to drop into while I slept on my side. I discovered that I didn’t really need that fancy pillow, though. One night I forgot to get it out of the closet and I found that I slept just fine on my side and it didn’t interfere with the mask’s fit over my nose. Anyone need a slightly used CPAP pillow?

The changes I began to notice didn’t happen right away, and I still have nights when the mask bothers me enough to wake me up. Hot, humid nights seem to be the worst, and having a rubbery mask over the nose sure doesn’t help! I’ve also had to learn to yawn without opening my mouth! Now there’s a neat trick!

Gradually, I noticed that I was making fewer trips to the bathroom during the night, and I had become more adept at taking the mask off and putting it back on correctly and still being able to fall back asleep promptly. I can’t say that I felt any better during the day, because I hadn’t felt tired before I started using the machine anyway!

Another change I noticed was in my blood pressure readings. After a few months of nightly usage, my numbers were considerably improved. So much so, that after discussing it with my doctor, I was able to stop taking two of the three blood pressure medicines that had been prescribed for me! I still monitor my blood pressure, and for the most part, the numbers continue to look good. Eliminating these prescriptions has certainly made the all the struggles worthwhile.

The link between sleep apnea, where breathing repeatedly starts and stops during sleep, and Atrial Fibrillation (A-FIB) has been firmly established. Atrial fibrillation is a defect in the electrical system of the heart that causes very rapid, irregular heartbeats and shortness of breath. It’s a scary thing when your heart goes berserk and it usually makes it necessary for me to stop what I’m doing and try some deep breathing. The good news is that I’ve had fewer and shorter episodes of A-FIB with the use of the CPAP machine all night, every night. That’s a huge benefit! The experts at the Cleveland Clinic that I had consulted about the A-FIB were the ones who recommended a sleep study, and that eventually led to my having to use the CPAP machine. I surely wasn’t happy about it, but it’s hard to argue with the experts and the improvements in my health!

Although adjusting to sleeping with a mask on your head is certainly not easy, considering some of the risks of not treating sleep apnea is even more disturbing. And how would you know if you have sleep apnea? Loud snoring, waking up often, gasping/choking, falling asleep during the day, even while driving, mouth breathing, and thrashing about while sleeping are all signs that you need to have a sleep study. Since I sleep alone, I had no feedback about some of those behaviors, but I had been waking up frequently and often had trouble falling back to sleep again. Having sleep apnea means your brain is being deprived of the oxygen levels it needs, and that can raise your risk of developing dementia. Untreated sleep apnea also raises your risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, Atrial Fibrillation and a host of other scary health problems. It really IS necessary to treat sleep apnea, no matter how much trouble getting used to the machine is at first!

The improvement I’ve seen in different health areas has been well worth the struggle, but I still think that the instructions I was given about assembling and using the machine at first could have been done much more effectively. I realize that the instructor may have been working with CPAP machines a long time and may have even been a bit bored with the repetition. She tended to go through everything so fast that I was left wondering how in the world I would ever remember all the instructions she gave me! Instead of just watching her assemble everything, I think it would have been much more effective to have me put it together myself and try to put the mask on several times. Don’t you find that you remember things a lot better if you actually get to do it yourself? I guess the teacher in me never quits!

Well, in spite of being off to a very rocky start, I’m happy to say that I’m getting along much better with my CPAP machine and have even started to experience better health because of it!

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Marilyn Secco is a retired teacher and the author of the book “Front Porch Tales.” She has two children and five grandchildren and lives in Kersey with a temperamental cat named Tidder.

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